Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wow, You’ve got something there! – Timbertrain

I love Timbertrain.
Cold Brew and subtle coffee
In a cozy space.

It’s been almost 2 years since my company moved from Yaletown to Gastown.  I have learned the following:
  • We cannot use the microwave and the kettle at the same time or we will short circuit ¼ of the electricity to our office and our neighbour’s too.  The joys of having an office in a building built in 1910.
  • Our building is probably haunted.  During a Saturday emergency office meeting, we heard children playing in the hallway but we were sure we were the only people in the building.  I can only imagine the stuff that may have happened in a building  that’s 100 + years old.
  • There is a creepy lady who dresses in a light blue nun’s habit, kind of looks like Jessica Lange from American Horror Stories, who tries to scam donations in the area.
  • The coffee in Gastown is much better than Yaletown

During the first 14 months, I got my morning Americano from Bean Around the World after deciding it was the best option for me via a Food Rumble.  However in the last 6 months I’ve become a regular at Timbertrain.

I was simply won over by the friendly staff, the customer focused details at the cafe, and most importantly, their better coffee.

I immediately noticed that the espresso shots pulled from Timbertrain’s own roasted beans were much lighter tasting but complex at the same time.  It was not dark or bitter tasting like my previous Americano.  Instead I detected a sweetness and a brightness in their brew.  As a result, I have been able to significantly reduce the amount of sugar and cream I need for my Americano.

One of the customer focused detail I adore at Timbertrain is they offer, for free, both still and sparkling water on tap.  I’ve never seen sparkling water on tap available for patrons to partake at any other café in town.  I also love the fact they do have fun with the signage for it. 

Timbertrain offers a modest selection of outsourced pastries and confections and I think they hit a home run with their partnership with Float On Bakeshop on Fraser.  I love the Comfort Cookie baked at Float On and sold at Timbertrain.  It is the oddest ensemble of ingredients but so enjoyable and smile inducing. 

The cookie contains pretzels, ridged potato chips and chocolate.  The salty ingredients, the pretzel and chips, added texture and their saltine nature boosted the sweetness and flavours within this sweet treat.

The next on my list to try at Timbertrain is the very trendy Cold Brew which they have near their front counter/cashier area.  I didn’t realize they offered it until recently and by then the weather had turned; a hot Americano is much more comforting currently.  

In short, Timbertrain is a modest sized coffee shop but is big on charm and quality coffee.  It’s a great place to relax in Gastown.

Timbertrain Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Food for Thought: Vietnam beyond Pho and Southern Cuisine (A Sequel)

A sweet and fair Rose,
Showcases cuisine from Hanoi,
At quaint Mr. Red.

In the previous post, I went to Mui Ngo Gai to experience Vietnamese cuisine beyond Pho.  This time to escape the grip of Pho, I went to Mr. Red Cafe for food from the city of Hanoi and in general Northern Vietnam.

I didn’t realize that most of the Vietnamese food served in the Lower Mainland has its origins from South Vietnam and is Saigon centric.  I was very curious about the different dishes I would see and how Northern Vietnamese cuisine would differ.

First off, Mr. Red is a family run business with Rose manning the dining area and her husband working the magic in the kitchen.  Rose is the friendly face of Mr. Red.  She is super charming and very knowledgeable about the food they serve.

On my first visit, I ordered the Bun Cha and Crab Spring Rolls. 

Bun Cha is a very popular street food from Hanoi.  It’s grilled pork patties in, I think Nuoc Cham, dipping sauce served with herbs and rice noodles.  You eat the noodles by dipping them in to the sauce.  At Mr. Red, in addition to the grilled pork patties, there are slices of grilled porky belly, carrots and papaya.

I was very leery of the dipping sauce as I find most Nuoc Cham have an overwhelming sweetness that I’m not fond of.  However at Mr. Red, the sauce was actually very balanced.  I was able to detect other components of the sauce like the fish sauce.  Much like southern fare, this dish came loaded with fresh herbs.  There was more variety in the herbs as lemon balm was included as well.  The pork patties had a nice soft texture.  Both patties and the pork belly had a grilled s taste.  This dish was simple and substantial but not heavy; a winner in my books.

I was excited to try the Crab Spring Rolls since I have never seen it on any Vietnamese menus before.  When they arrived I realized I made a mistake and ordered the entrée version instead of the appetizer.  The 3 rectangular spring rolls came with all the herbs and noodles that came with the Bun Cha.

The spring rolls were filled with crab, carrots, wood ear fungus, and glass noodle.  The filling was very soft and flavourful.   I was curious about the wrapper they used, as it was different than the rice wrappers that are normally deployed in Vietnamese spring rolls; there was no pocking.  It was thin and crispy.

I was impressed with my meal and returned a few weeks later to try two more non-Pho items at Mr. Red.  I ordered the pyramid dumpling and the Sticky Rice with Chicken.

According to Rose, only a dozen or so pyramid dumplings are made daily.  Well this dumpling won’t win any beauty contests, as it looks like a big blob.  However this thing was delicious.  It’s served unwrapped, but the glutinous dumpling wrapper did leave its mark, imparting its distinct green colour.  I was expecting the gummy wrapper to be sweet or have a raw flour taste like mochi but it had not only absorbed the flavour of the wrapper but also the meaty filling; making the outer dough tastier than expected.

The filling mainly consisted of a savoury cooked ground meat (probably pork) in a thin gravy.  There was a surprise in the form of a quail’s egg.  This dumpling reminded me of a healthier steamed version of the dim sum staple, deep fried pork dumpling (Ham Sui Gok).   Despite its appearance I enjoyed this unique dumpling.

The last non-Pho item I tried at Mr. Red was the Sticky Rice with Chicken.  This dish is complex and an umami explosion.  The turmeric stained sweetish rice is topped with powdered earthy mung bean, shreds of chicken, fragrant fried shallots and the impressively rich and salty in-house made pate. 

The pate is wonderful and boldly stands out, making it the star of the dish.  Each bite of the sticky rice had different texture and tastes, making this simple dish more complicated.    To help balance out the heaviness of the sticky rice, pickled daikon and carrot slivers are provided.   The sticky rice with chicken is unique and a wonderful must try.

Based on the food I tried, the only difference I noticed about Northern Vietnamese cuisine is it seems more subtle than its southern counterpart.  I found the flavours at Mr. Red more balanced, creating a harmonious eating experience instead of the more bold and in your face tastes, in particular sweetness, of Vietnamese food I have had in the city.

Mr. Red Cafe is a charming and great family run restaurant offering tasty variety to the Vietnamese food scene in Vancouver.  It’s a gem in an East Van neighbourhood fast becoming a must go to place for fabulous but unfussy food.  

Mr. Red Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Miku, the Original Vancouver Aburi Masters

Aburi masters,
O.G. of the Charcoal Torch,
the distinct Miku.

This is post 100.  To celebrate let’s torch up some sushi.  My born in Vancouver but currently based in Toronto sister, The Planner, was in town and she had a hankering for Vancouver sushi. 

The funny thing about cravings is if you don’t satisfy it with a good enough offering, the craving ends up being more intense instead of going away.

So with that in mind, I thought let’s go to Miku to get a view of the ocean, which The Planner missed dearly as well.

I hadn’t visited the new location for Miku yet and was excited to sit at the sushi bar.  The Planner allowed to me to pick the dishes for our meal and I selected:
  • Pickled Market Vegetables
  • A platter of the Aburi Sashimi
  • Their Famous Salmon Oshi Sushi
  • Saikyo Miso Baked Sablefish

The pickles might seem like an odd choice.  However, I had a craving for them and wanted their ability to cleanse the palate and stimulate our appetites.  There were crunchy and not too sour.

With a front seat perch, the sushi chefs seemed to have their hands full as the ticket machine just continually spat out orders after order.  Not surprisingly, our baked Sablefish from the kitchen came out ahead of our raw fish orders.

The cooked entrée was beautifully plated.  It consisted of two shrimp dumplings, the Sablefish, topped with a Yuzu foam while sitting on top of veggies (snow peas, beans, mushrooms and radish), and a dashi broth. 

All the accompanying items were executed well.  The filling of the shrimp dumpling was nice and sweet.  The Sablefish was cooked perfectly.  However I thought it was under seasoned and didn’t have the same depth of flavour as similar dishes from other Japanese restaurants in town.

The sashimi arrived next and WOW!  Stylishly presented, the charcoal torched slices of sockeye salmon, maguro and hamachi were fantastic.  In particular the sockeye salmon was super sweet and full of umami flavour.  Combined with the subtle charring from the aburi technique, this local orangey red piece of sashimi was amazing.

On their own, the sashimi was great but each type of fish came with its own sauce.  There was the peach coloured mentaiko sauce for the salmon, the chunky wasabi masatake sauce for the Maguro and a mint green avocado puree for the Hamachi.  

Both The Planner and I liked the creaminess of the mentaiko sauce.  It very much reminded me of the Greek Tarama dip in terms of taste and texture.  We ended using the mentaiko sauce for all fish on the platter.

Finally, Miku’s most renowned dish arrived.  The Salmon Oshi Sushi derives its name from the type of sushi it is: Oshizushi (a.ka. box sushi or pressed sushi).  With a clear view of the sushi chefs, I watched as they placed the rice and salmon in the oshibako mold, press down and then pop out the long rectangular piece of sushi. 

The chef expertly cuts the molded sushi into bite size pieces.  Another chef tops the sushi with a creamy sauce and slices of Jalapeño.  He then deftly employs the aburi method of using a torch and a piece of charcoal to quickly flame the sushi.

The result is a delicious piece of aburi salmon sushi that melts in your mouth.  The grains of rice, despite being pressed, instantly break apart when you place it in your mouth.  The rich fatty taste of the salmon is heightened from the heat.  The special sauce adds a layer of creaminess. Even the thin slice of Jalapeno has an important role as its spiciness adds a kick to help balance out the sushi from being to heavy tasting.

The Salmon Oshi Sushi is imitated at eateries around town and justifiably so as Miku’s creation is just awesome.

To conclude our meal, The Planner and I ordered our own desserts.  I wanted something light and selected the Tropical Brunoise, which essentially was a fancy fruit salad that came with a crispy passion fruit cannoli.  Sweet and refreshing, it hit the spot.  The only thing I would change is I wish they served it in a bowl instead of a plate as I had problems scooping up the last few cubes of fruit.

My sister chose the more decadent Cherry Cassis Slice.  I assumed she enjoyed it as she ate everything and had a smile on her face.

Overall this visit confirmed my long-standing opinions of Miku:
  • the sushi created here is among the best in the city
  • its cook food is merely ok
  • the original desserts are a nice way too end a meal; better than the common Green Tea Ice Cream
The sushi is executed so well at Miku, it just out shines everything else the restaurant serves.  In short, when you visit this tony waterfront restaurant stick to raw stuff, especially the aburi items. 

Miku Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 19, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Health Overload from Shishinori

Welcome, Namaste.
Shishinori: so healthy,
Very Vancouver.

In my quest to find a reasonable facsimile of the Poke I had on the North Shore of Oahu, I travelled to Shishinori.  Located on the Cambie corridor near the City Hall skytrain station, this new eatery is minimally furnished with touches of Japanese cuteness, including an anime show that is projected on the back wall.

I was interested in trying their Hawaii Ahi Poke bowl which came with 3 flavour options: Shoyu, Spicy and Wasabi.  I went with the shoyu option, up sized my bowl to a meal, paid for my order, was given a number and patiently waited for my meal to come to my table.

Upon its arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the portion and presentation.  It looked appetizing and I had an overwhelming sense of smugness that I made a very healthy food choice today. 

The bowl came with a large green salad comprised of spinach and watercress, a poke served on brown rice, and garnishes comprised of fruit and edamame.  To complete my meal, I was given a mushroom miso soup and iced green tea in a mason jar.

The miso soup and tea were good but not really noteworthy.  The star of the meal was the bowls themselves.

The shoyu Hawaiian Poke looked right with fresh chunks of pink Ahi tuna, seaweed, chopped green onions and sesame seeds.  However with the first bite, I knew it was not exactly what I had in Hawaii.  The shoyu flavouring tasted more like a teriyaki sauce than just a plain soy sauce.  Although salty, it was predominantly sweet, and a bit too much in taste and amount. 

I felt Shishinori used this sauce as a way to add flavor to the brown rice and to the bowl in general.  The remaining elements of the bowl rely predominantly on their own natural flavours as the salad is minimally dressed and the other elements (mango slice, avocado, edamame etc) are not enhanced with anything.

Despite the disappointing poke, I did enjoy my very healthy meal.  I like the inclusion of spicy watercress and the sweet slices of mangos.  I felt super good after finishing my meal.

A few weeks later, I felt I needed a food detox and decided to visit Shishinori again.  I ordered the Salmon Paradise bowl meal, after the server explained that it was cubes of salmon mixed with seasonal fruit and served with a dressing.  All I thought to myself, “Isn’t that a Salmon Poke?!?!”

Indeed it was somewhat like a Salmon Poke, mixed with cubes of apples and avocado, served with a heaping amount of spinach salad, half a soft boiled egg, brown rice, and fruit and edamame garnishes.  Once again it looked overwhelmingly good for you, chalk full of vitamins and antioxidants. 

Unfortunately that cloying sauce returned in salmon portion of the bowl.  Although the rich taste of the salmon, and natural sweet and tart flavour of apple were able to stand up to the teriyaki like sauce and shine a bit.

Alas, my search for Hawaiian Poke must continue.  However, despite the sauce, this was not the worst rendition I’ve had.  There’s an eatery out there with dish identification issues, as they use an acid in their version which essential makes it a ceviche not a Poke, despite what the menu says.

Essentially the two items I got at Shishinori were giant vibrant salads served with brown rice and a raw protein.  In both cases I liked the freshness of the ingredients, how each of the components worked well together and the overall presentation of the dishes.  I just wish the staff would switch to a light soy dressing instead of depending on that syrupy sweet sauce. 

Perhaps it’s the vision of the rich hues of colour on the plate, the crunchy texture of the veggies, or the fact you probably ate half the daily recommended serving of plant matter in one sitting, I did feel energized, had a bounce in my step, felt very zen and light.

I would definitely return for a healthy meal and since its nearby neighbours are Whole Foods and Lululemon Lab, I think Shishinori will do just fine.

Shishinori on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Wonton Mein Saga: Tsim Chai Noodles Shrimp Pork Hybrid Wontons

Shrimp and Pork Wontons?
Blasphemy? Nope, delicious
At Tsim Chai Noodles.

Recently, I made an impromptu trip to Richmond after work and ending up visiting an old favourite for lunch.  It had been a long time since I went to Tsim Chai Noodles near the Richmond Public Market.

I sat down in its no fuss dinning room and ordered my customary wonton noodles with veggies for a complete meal. 

The soup was a good superior broth with an impactful seafood taste and full of umami flavour.  The noodles were toothsome and had a nice texture to them.  I felt these noodles were cooked perfectly as they stayed relatively chewy throughout my meal.

In a bit a of a switch up, for the healthy & green portion of my lunch I got Yu Choy, instead of the more common Gai Lan or the dreaded Iceberg lettuce.  The leafy veggies were vibrant green and cooked until tender but not mushy.

As for the wontons, they were properly wrapped, sizable and cooked well.  For the filling, they had both shrimp and fatty pork to them. 

When you bite into these soup dumplings you get a wave of sesame oil and a strong shrimp flavour. However towards the end, there’s a rich fatty pork taste.

Overall, I liked these wontons a lot as nothing tasted watered down, and the 3 distinct flavours of the dumpling worked harmoniously.

For some, the inclusion of pork is a big no-no in wontons, but for me I actually prefer some chopped pork as long as it’s not the dominant feature.  When done right like Tsim Chai, the pork adds a subtle contrasting taste that helps break up the large amount of seafood flavour in wontons.
If you think about it, wonton noodles soup can be pretty monotonous in flavour with a heavy shrimp component in the soup and then the bountiful shrimp in the dumplings.  As a result, the inclusion of pork can break up that wall of seafood umami while not being too jarring as it’s a nice mild sweet white meat.

I really enjoyed my wonton noodle soup at Tsim Chai Noodles; so much so I think they are my preferred wonton noodles soup in the Lower Mainland.  After finishing my meal there, I wondered why it took so long for me to return.  

Tsim Chai Noodles 沾仔記 on Urbanspoon